Catholic groups across U.S. opening doors to Katrina victims

By Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic organizations as far away as San Francisco and Chicago were opening their doors to victims of Hurricane Katrina as relief agencies began coping with the masses of people left homeless along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

In response to a request by the American Red Cross, the San Francisco Archdiocese offered St. Mary's Cathedral to shelter 300 victims. The archdiocese also announced it would be providing case management and other services geared for seniors and children.

Catholic Charities of Chicago announced that it was preparing a residential facility to house seniors and families and was working with city officials to find other suitable residences.

In Louisiana, meanwhile, Catholic Charities of New Orleans and Catholic Community Services of Baton Rouge are working with government, community and volunteer organizations at disaster sites to assess short-term and long-term needs. For the short term, both agencies are providing grief counseling services while trying to re-establish the level of services they provided prior to the hurricane.

Church officials are developing a "ministry in motion," said Beth Millbank, communications director for the New Orleans Archdiocese's Catholic Charities.

Millbank said her organization needs drivers to transport food and people, volunteers to sort and distribute food, and office assistants.

The New Orleans agency has temporarily relocated in the neighboring Baton Rouge Diocese and is reorganizing, because many of its 1,000-member staff are unaccounted-for.

"What we need more than anything is money," said Millbank. "We can buy exactly what we need."

Millbank said programs are also being coordinated with Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services.

Frank Carlin, former CRS deputy executive director, has come out of retirement to assist. He said CRS has ample experience handling natural disasters and will "identify and anticipate the problems that are coming."

Carlin said the increased population flowing into Baton Rouge because of the hurricane would put pressure on a city which already has many poor and vulnerable people liable to fall between the cracks. Another concern is the impact on employment, he said.

In Chicago, about 40 people, both evacuees and Chicago-area residents expecting large groups of relatives from the disaster area, contacted Catholic Charities within a week after the hurricane hit, said Joan McConnell, who coordinates emergency assistance for Catholic Charities of Chicago.

"We got a call from one woman expecting relatives who have eight children with them," McConnell said. "They need food, clothing, everything."

Many families taking in relatives do not have the resources to provide for them, said McConnell.

"They might be barely making it, and they can't support 11 more," she said.

Besides providing housing, food and clothing, Catholic Charities of Chicago plans to provide social services and help in relocating victims.

Catholic Charities of Arkansas is encouraging each parish in the state to appoint a hurricane relief coordinator so that direct services to victims can be done at the parish level. The organization is offering parish coordinators training in disaster relief, case management and resettlement.

The Diocese of Little Rock, which covers the entire state, also opened a hurricane relief office on the campus of St. John Center in Little Rock to assist the estimated 59,000 evacuees who have come to the state.

"We're the only nonprofit agency in the state that does refugee resettlement," said Sheila Gomez, director of Catholic Charities of Arkansas. "We have this experience and understand that it's a complicated process. The people that do it need to be trained."

Catholic Charities of Memphis, Tenn., has been working with other community groups to assist thousands of Katrina victims who have arrived. It is providing shelter, clothing, food and counseling services.

Catholic Charities organizations in San Antonio, Galveston-Houston and Washington geared up to provide similar services to victims.

The U.S. bishops' Catholic Campaign for Human Development is giving $50,000 each to three parish-based community organizing operations around the country to help them receive victims and train volunteers to help in relief efforts.

The Knights of Columbus has pledged at least $2.5 million in financial assistance and will match any funds beyond those donated to a special Knights' Katrina fund over a 60-day period. An additional $1 million will be donated to rebuild an estimated 130 Catholic schools destroyed or seriously damaged because of the hurricane.

The Knights have 50,000 members in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

On Labor Day a team of Florida Catholic officials began a tour of the Mississippi disaster area to establish distribution sites for emergency supplies that will be trucked into the area.

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Contributing to this story were Paul Haring in Baton Rouge, Michelle Martin in Chicago, Tara Little in Little Rock and Agostino Bono in Washington.

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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